The American Correctional Association holds a public hearing on new Solitary Confinement standards in New Orleans. And then VOTE showed up.
by Bruce Reilly, VOTE Deputy Director
Torture by another name
When I walked into a New Orleans conference room for a public comment session on torture standards in United States jails and prisons, the vice president of the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America was speaking. His testimony captured the ‘feel good’ spirit of a fraternal group, a group of over 100 men and women that could have been addressing a mundane corporate challenge in shipping or customer service. Things used to be pretty bad, but they’re getting better. There is less violence in prisons and we are reducing incarceration. He could have written the talking points for a politician wanting to move on to a different issue.
The American Correctional Association (ACA) was there to revise standards regarding what they refer to as “restrictive housing,” but many others will know it as solitary confinement, the hole, segregation, SHU, CCU and other names. In fact, one of the primary revisions is changing the reference from "segregation" to "restrictive housing." Perhaps the next euphemism will be "extremely affordable housing," when all people in prison are charged $5 per day to forcibly rent a room.
The ACA has accredited 500 prisons and other entities across America, including well-known local places such as Angola, Wade, Dixon, Avoyelles, and Rayburn; and notorious facilities across the nation, including Pelican Bay, Folsom, San Quentin, Lompoc, Marion, Cook County Jail, Sing Sing, Attica, and many others. Places where hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have taken turns entering sensory deprivation cages for days, weeks, months, and years on end.
The ACA may not have been expecting input from people who have been held in solitary confinement. Such entities rarely, if ever, explicitly seek the input of directly impacted people. Their staffs and committee members are people who run an industry, not people who come from the impacted community- and prison is possibly the one industry where their only accountability is regarding the deaths of confined people, or (more accurately) how to keep costs down while keeping them alive.
I could not possibly speak on behalf of millions of incarcerated people. I could not even speak on behalf of any single other person who has undergone the unique torture process designed solely to break one’s mind and spirit. I could, however, share my experience of having spent roughly 1000 days in solitary confinement during my years of incarceration. To root my all-too-brief ten minutes in grim reality, I was compelled to make a few anecdotal points rather than rattle off my specific editorial comments on the podium in front of me. I am, after all, a legally trained professional. Because I'm known to become passionate about these subjects, I could only hope Norris Henderson would follow up with his calm and wise demeanor- which he inevitably did.
Here are ten key points we put out there:
The effectiveness of "restrictive housing."
Solitary confinement has been very effective in destroying families that are barely holding on with a visit or phone call. It is very effective in cutting off reading materials and deteriorating physical health. It is an excellent way to break people, and turn them into zombies doing the “Thorazine shuffle,” posing no further concern to the guards or other inmates. They become slow-moving statues, and sometimes go off their heavy doses of medication to wake up in a strange world difficult to navigate or understand. These cages are excellent tools for enhanced punishment techniques, serving the internal needs of the short-tempered, the vindictive, and the sadistic.
Restrictive housing is not just another prison wing. Children in adult facilities are typically in solitary confinement, labeled as "Administrative Segregation," and being controlled by guards accustomed to dealing with adults. Transgender people, medically impaired people, and politically unpopular people fill the cages of solitary. It is shameful that Americans can know more about the conditions of Guantanamo Bay than the prisons in their own backyard. It is time for that ignorance to end, and current political candidates to be leaders, and should be seeking the input of people who are currently in those windowless concrete cages. Otherwise, they will be left reading reports by the cagers who will pass a new set of standards over coffee based on actuarial spreadsheets and warden reports.